John Oliver and the Meandering Jog on a Treadmill

(Note: while this is an education blog, in this piece I discuss a comedy program that is on HBO. In other words, expect slightly more adult material than usual!)

Over ten years ago Jon Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire, in a memorable segment that announced the ascent of comedy as legitimate news, while foreshadowing the polarization of cable journalism in the last decade. The fact that we now have higher standards for our comedians than for our anchors is neither original nor unfortunate, as the tradition of the wise fool poking fun at power is a tradition older than journalism itself. But whereas Stewart got to plead innocence to the charge of “journalism” in 2004, I’m not sure that Stewart’s offspring can avoid indictment. That’s why a bunch of people lost their minds when John Oliver did a segment lampooning standardized testing. That piece did not get laughs from some dedicated education advocates.

I’d like to talk about that tension, but before I proceed, let me be clear about one thing: accountability is necessary. Oliver acknowledges as much when he says, “accountability is something everyone agrees on.” Oliver goes on to say, though, that the problem with testing has been with implementation, and the rest of his segment includes anecdotes and data points that form the storyline of a testing regime run mad. In a race to condemn Oliver’s rant as a betrayal of the lofty ends to which testing aspires, folks miss the power of the kind of rhetoric Oliver uses. For a clinic in the deployment in this sort of narrative, education advocates should reach for an example with fewer anxiety triggers than the testing clip. For a laugh and a lesson, go back and watch Oliver school Edward Snowden in the art of persuasion. Oliver manages to gin up unanimous support for clamping down on government surveillance by telling people on the street that the government has pictures of their “dicks,” an argument that changes minds far more reliably than Snowden’s wonky reliance on charts, graphs, and legalese.

What does this mean? I have a few thoughts for John Oliver, the not-so-faux journalist, because even though I laughed really hard at his joke about the Common Core logo, I’d like to think he welcomes dissent. First, just because there’s a long mathematical formula for something, as he showed that there is for testing, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If your pharmacist said, “I’d love to give you the right pain medication, but those formulas are wicked long, am I right?!” you would switch pharmacists. Immediately. Educating kids is more complex than it looks, as any teacher can verify, so let’s not assume that all complexity is an attempt at obfuscation. Second, I winced at the crying young woman in the segment, the one who said that she did poorly on her standardized test after getting good grades in school. I can’t speak to her specific case, but this sort of dissonance between grades and real world standards is literally the kind of thing that good accountability is supposed to sort out. In other words, if you’re upset because the nice people at Chipotle said the burritos were healthy, and then you totally gain a bunch of weight after eating them every day for a month, society doesn’t get to blame the scale. That's on you, Chipotle! America is watching!

To complement my unsolicited feedback for Oliver, I also have some tough talk for education advocates. We need to work on our sense of humor. Oliver’s segment was funny. I laughed because it revealed difficult truths, not just because, as Andy Rotherham put it, he told a story “delivered with a British accent and a blowjob joke sprinkled in.” First of all, he also told a handjob joke, get your facts straight, Eduwonk. Second, the technocratic things that sound great in meetings with statisticians are exactly the kind of things that make great fodder for takedowns like the one Oliver just delivered. The more we rely on charts, graphs, and formulas to tell a story, the more we are opening ourselves up to this kind of journalism. While a meaningful accountability regime is a goal worth defending and advancing, it is one that is dying for new rhetoric, at the very least. Oliver is both good at rhetoric and has a professional writing team at his disposal. When he called Race to the Top a “meandering jog on a treadmill,” he was aiming for the heart, not the head. While a lot of the time the heart wants earnest depictions of vulnerable children, other times it wants a sex joke.

Educating kids is supposed to be a joyful experience, and too much of the debate over things like testing sound like a faceoff over who can express more righteous indignation. Whether we’re defending the rights of low-income children or the dignity of teachers, we’d all be better off if we could laugh at ourselves a little more.